tolstoy and me: a romance

Unfortunately, he is not so wrong, that king of Dahomy, in the interior of Africa, who said not long ago to an Englishman: God made this world for war: all the kingdoms, great and small, have practiced it at all time, although on different principles. – Joseph de Maistre.

Though I have long ago rid myself of an intellectual belief in a personal God (retaining a superstitious belief which it is beyond my power to annihilate, and that follows me like the black dog followed Faust), I have never let go of the old and new testaments – as is obvious from every sentence I write. The King James version leers out at you, like the gargoyles above the lintel of some decayed old manse, with the fug of mold and pee all around it. The prophets between them serve as the best school of politics I know – in particular, the denunciation of elite corruption, seen in the round – seen as the sum of a seemingly disparate set of episodes and habits. The new testament is an altogether iffier thing, and I can understand why Nietzsche thought it was a crime against literature to put the two testaments together. However, the crime, if there is one, is against a classical aesthetic that Nietzsche’s own writings joyfully transgress – in part, obviously, due to the influence of the Bible. Out of the Bible comes the Menippean tradition – rather than out of Menippus, for who the fuck reads fragments of Menippus? Jesus brings home the sugar, while the prophets, like Joni Mitchell’s mom, provide the deeper meaning

I was raised on the Bible, but it wasn’t until I achieved the estate of a man, or at least the age of drinkin’ and legal fuckin’, that I took up Tolstoy. And it is through Tolstoy, still, that I see the prophets or the gospel – as a ruthless means to dispel the cloud of unknowing that can clog up one’s sensorium. See with the eyes in my head and feel with the pads of my fingers those things which we are taught not to look at, though they make up the greater part of our life. Tolstoy had a sense of the shockingness of the gospel, and was willing to go to the line for that shock. That making strange that the Formalists so loved in Tolstoy, it comes in part from the Bible. I’ve been thinking about Tolstoy, lately, thinking that I should look up what he has to say about happiness. Of course, when you start reading Tolstoy, if you are a certain type of person, you can get intellectually drunk. He feeds the desire to slough off the dead life in one convulsive movement, no matter what the cost, like some fur coat in an overheated room. Your skin crawls to do it. That’s a desire that generally doesn’t surface; it stays below, covered, of course, by tv, porn, shopping, exhaustion, and staring in one’s cubicle at flickering screens for hours. The routines, the routines – you can’t leave them, or you are lost.

Tolstoy, then. This is one of the things he says in a letter he wrote to an American pacifist group. It is published in his works as the Letter on non-resistance:

Christian teaching does not lay down laws for everybody, and does not say to people, “You all, for fear of punishment, must obey such and such rules, and then you will all be happy’; but it explains to each individual his position in relation to the world, and lets him see what results, for him individually, inevitably flow from that relation. Christianity says to man 9and to each man separately) that his personal life can have no rational meaning if he counts it as belonging to himself, or as having for its aim worldly happiness for himself or for other people. This is so because the happiness he seeks is unattainable: (1) because, as all beings strive after worldly advantages, the gain of one is the loss of others, and it is most probable that each individual will incur much superfluous suffering in the course of his vain efforts to seize unattainable blessings; (2) because, even if a man gets worldly advantages, the more he obtains the less they satisfy him and the more he hankers after fresh ones; (3) and chiefly because the longer a man lives, the more inevitable become the approach of old age, sickness and death, destroying all possibility of worldly advantages.”

LI is blown away by the fact that Tolstoy, here, anticipates our argument about the positional economy and the creation of emotional customs in which happiness operates as both the norm and the motive – and our argument about the hedonic fallacy, the problem with projecting happiness, a mood, upon circumstances, which are not a mood and can’t feel a mood – and finally, our notion that the happiness culture ruthlessly liquidates the imitatio that distinguishes the ideals and figures of different ages, making all ages align to an ideal of youth, against which they are judged. That Tolstoy merges the positional economy with the market economy wholesale is something that I will let pass for the moment (or maybe not – the liberal moment arises from the realization that the industrial and market system do not inherently create such win-lose relationships), because I’d prefer to take this passage as a directional cue. Since I want to explore the deeply sick reactionary tradition of pessimism, giving it its due, I need to get out of the pessimistic framework for a second to assure my readers that I am not a revolutionary conservative, and that my protest against happiness triumphant is not going to end up leaving us dripping in a bunch of Heideggerian mush.

I am not dragging in Tolstoy here from some whim, mind you. I think Tolstoy represents a break with both the programmatic happiness culture in the 19th century and its sworn enemy, the pessimists. On first glance, one might think that you could just draw a line between Joseph de Maistre, through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to Tolstoy, and from Tolstoy to your pick of the litter of twentieth century reactionaries. However, even a cursory reading of Tolstoy would disabuse you of this supposition. The line breaks at Tolstoy. The reason that the line breaks is Tolstoy’s absolute turn against violence. The pessimists - and here the dark promptings of de Maistre are the mole in the works – turned to violence not just as a temporary solution, but as a redemptive force. It was Isaiah Berlin who pointed this out in a famous essay on de Maistre. But don’t think LI has gone soft in the head about Isaiah Berlin. His notion is that de Maistre is the godfather of both left and right totalitarianism, and that is an exculpatory gesture that makes cold war liberalism just an innocent accomplice to the building of nuclear threat world. Don’t believe that at all. Let’s just say that liberalism is up to its ass in war culture, and many of its cold war spokesmen spent as much time denying this as they spend pimping for another war, another intervention. From all points of view, Tolstoy’s notion is considered eccentric, or mad, or unworkable, or an excuse to continue the old system.

All of which leads me to… Thou shalt not kill, the Tolstoy essay I’ll look at in my next post, I think.